JR Hildebrand is returning to Indianapolis Motor Speedway with renewed hope and a nostalgic presence on his race car.
Hildebrand will drive a Chevrolet for a second straight year with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, attempting to qualify for his ninth Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge. The team announced Monday that he’ll be part of a two-car effort again with Sage Karam.
“I’m excited to get back for Year 2 with these guys,” said the 31-year-old who finished 11th in the Indy 500 last year. “We learned a lot last year about working together as a group and I’m really confident that we’re going to come back this year stronger than we were.”
He’ll also do it in homage to his racing hero – the late Dan Gurney.
Hildebrand does little around the racetrack that doesn’t carry at least a hint of his passion for the sport’s history, including the number on his car. Last year it was No. 66, a reminder of the number on Jim Clark’s only NASCAR ride, with styling that fit the motif of primary sponsor Salesforce.
This year it will be No. 48 to honor Gurney, regarded as one of the best ever to race in Indy cars, Formula One, stock cars and more before he became a successful team owner and renowned car constructor.
Hildebrand, a native Californian, had spoken with Gurney, a transplanted Californian, several times before his death in 2018, including a couple lengthy discussions about how the sport developed through Gurney’s life.
“Dan brought such a special and unique story to racing. That’s what it’s about,” Hildebrand said. “It’s not that we’re comparing our era to his, or me as a driver to him, but we are honoring this legacy that he’s left. That’s obviously a lot of what I am passionate about in the sport.”
Hildebrand lost the chance to use No. 66 again when McLaren announced over the offseason that it would use that number on Fernando Alonso’s car, its own effort to commemorate McLaren’s first Indy 500 win in 1972 by Team Penske’s Mark Donohue.
“With (No.) 66 being gone, we first thought we’ll just do (No.) 99 or something like that,” Hildebrand said. “I’d been chatting with Jimmie Johnson (the seven-time NASCAR Cup champion who drives the No. 48) a little bit and I started thinking, ‘Maybe we should switch this up.’ Instead of going with something that was close to our other number, we thought we could kind of play on this theme of historically relevant, cool numbers. We picked the 48, which was obviously Dan Gurney’s number when he ran Indy. I’m excited for that.”
Gurney (shown above right and below in 1968) drove the No. 48 three times in the Indy 500, finishing second in 1968 and 1969 and third in 1970, and campaigned the No. 48 as an owner of All-American Racers, winning with driver Bobby Unser in 1975.
“I’m thrilled to have Salesforce back on our race car, and also honoring the great Dan Gurney with the No. 48 this year,” Hildebrand said. “Dan was one of my racing heroes.”
Gurney’s son, Alex, said the family will be honored to see the car number that means to much turn laps once more on the famed IMS oval.
“We are very much looking forward to another exciting Indy 500 in 2019,” Alex Gurney said. “The No. 48 is special to our family, as my dad took that number to second place in both ’68 and ’69 as well as a win for AAR as a team and manufacturer in 1975. This is a great tribute to my dad. JR Hildebrand is a special person as well as a fantastic driver, and he seems always to be in contention for the win at Indy. I hope he can put the (No.) 48 up front in the big race.”
Monday’s announcement paves the way for Hildebrand to drive in Wednesday’s NTT IndyCar Series open test at IMS, his first laps in a DRR car since last year’s Indy 500. It’ll provide valuable track time for a team that didn’t test the new universal aero kit last year until Indy 500 practice began. The open test streams live from 11 a.m.-6 p.m. ET on IndyCar.com. Fans may watch for free from the Turn 2 viewing mounds inside the facility.
He started 27th and finished 11th in the 2018 race that became a handling challenge for many drivers, with such veterans as Sebastien Bourdais, Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan among those who crashed.
“Being able to get a test under our belts (on Wednesday) and have a little time to soak that in prior to the month of May will be valuable,” said Hildebrand, who made his NTT IndyCar Series debut with DRR for a pair of races in late 2010, a year after he won the Indy Lights championship. “Last year’s race was really challenging for everybody. That was especially apparent on race day. It was hard to pass and guys were losing it all by themselves out there with the track conditions being so hot and the universal kit being so new for everybody in superspeedway trim.”
Dennis Reinbold, the team’s owner, is pleased to have Hildebrand rejoin the team for the 2019 race.
“Last year, we expanded to two cars with JR and Sage and the combination worked very well,” Reinbold said. “JR’s experience at Indy brings our team a lot of background to develop the cars quickly in practice and prepare for qualifying.
“With JR and Sage, we have two very talented young drivers who can compete for the win on May 26. Plus, running the No. 48 in honor of Dan Gurney is exciting for me and our team. Dan was one of my heroes as a kid and it will be great to have the No. 48 back at IMS.”
Tickets for May activities at IMS, including the INDYCAR Grand Prix on May 11 and the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge on May 26, are available at IMS.com.